Could the two players who collided to begin the last playoffs be the Canes’ key this year?

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The playoffs began, last August, at the intersection of two former and future teammates. In the first game against the New York Rangers, newly acquired Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Brady Skjei laid out former Rangers teammate Jesper Fast in the neutral zone, knocking Fast out of what turned out to be a very short series.

Nine months later, free-agent signing Fast heads into his first postseason with the Hurricanes at the same time Skjei completes his first full season with the team, and in some ways their combined presence represents one of the biggest improvements the Hurricanes have made since last season.

It’s one potential answer to the biggest question the Hurricanes face as they open the playoffs against the Nashville Predators at PNC Arena on Monday night: Why will this postseason be different than the past two?

The easiest answer is to avoid the Boston Bruins, who won eight of nine games against the Hurricanes while eliminating them in consecutive years, first in the Eastern Conference finals, then in the first round. With the first two rounds played entirely within the Central Division, the Bruins aren’t a concern at the moment.

But the Hurricanes have been good enough to win a total of 2½ series the past two years, and expectations are higher this spring after a remarkably successful performance in the abbreviated regular season.

Against the Predators, and either the Tampa Bay Lightning or Florida Panthers should they advance, the Hurricanes may not need to dig any deeper than they have in the regular season when they went 16-5-3 against that trio. (The Lightning might be a slightly different challenge now having added Steven Stamkos and Nitika Kucherov in the postseason, a resounding victory over the salary cap.)

Their aspirations lie beyond the division, and as this team moves into what should be its window to contend for the Stanley Cup, it’ll need more ammunition in the postseason than it has had the past two years.

While many of the Hurricanes’ key players are at an age where they should improve with each passing season, Fast and Skjei have made the team better with their presence — Fast as a newcomer, Skjei as an invaluable counterbalance on defense who feels like he’s been around much longer than he have.

The Hurricanes also added gritty fourth-line center Cedric Paquette during the season — another postseason need filled — and Alex Nedeljkovic has emerged as a viable alternative to Petr Mrazek in goal, but it’s the two Rangers refugees who may represent the biggest difference at this time of year.

Skjei’s a calming presence on the blue line, versatile and reliable, and far more than he was last year, when the league shut down soon after his arrival. Now that his feet are on the ground, his brief injury absence last month only underlined his value to the team now as the essential fourth man behind the Hurricanes’ big three of Jaccob Slavin, Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce. (And even more so if Slavin isn’t ready to start the series.)

Then there’s Fast, whose hard-driving forechecking game should be even more valuable in the postseason than it has been so far. Thanks to Skjei, the Hurricanes never had to deal with Fast last season, but the Swede has the speed and the intention to be a disruptive force, especially if used against the opposition’s top line, as the Hurricanes are likely to use the line of Jordan Staal, Fast and Warren Foegele.

The long journey of the postseason is always in part a search for the unexpected. It’s rare a team goes deep in the playoffs without someone’s reputation being made, a career’s direction changing directions, an undiscovered gem being discovered. After two eventful postseasons that ended sooner than the Hurricanes would have liked, the difference this year could be as simple as the two players who collided to begin the playoffs a year ago.